Extract 2

Extract 2 – Laura

Down by the lochside in the expectant stillness of this early evening, the landscape seems re-cast in silver. Coarse shingle gleams wetly in several shades of grey; jagged rock juts into the water like polished gunmetal. Tree limbs fallen during last winter’s storms lie stranded on the shore like the ribcages of beached whales. Autumn is over now; the leaves are all fallen, the trees bare as skeletons. A buzzard circles overhead, its questing shadow reflected in the quick-silvered stillness of the loch.

Laura has become so very aware of the elements on this remote and rocky Highland shore. You live with them and you work with them and they forge you and they shape you. You join them, Meg says, in the age-old dance around the wheel of the year. Meg says that everyone has their element: the element to which they are drawn, to which they are bound. And she has no doubt that Laura’s is water. And perhaps it is true, Laura thinks; there is a pull that is almost gravitational, and a sense of loss when she is away from it. She was born by the sea and she grew up by the sea. And here she is now by the sea again, surrounded by water in all its forms. The chattering burns that tear their swift way down to the shore, and mark out the boundaries from field to field. The ‘broom’ or drizzly rain that lasts sometimes for days, that brings a misty softness to the land and blurs the transition from sea to sky. And above all, the sea loch that dominates the landscape, reinventing and transforming itself from season to season, from day to day, from morning to evening. Changing with the weather and the light. It has always seemed to Laura that shorelines are magical places: anything can happen here in this border land between water and earth – this fluid border that shifts with the tides, in perpetual motion and flow.

The tangy salt smell of seaweed fills her nostrils; she takes a last deep breath of it and turns back to the rusty farm gate that leads to the field and beyond that to the house. Startled, she steps back. Meg stands quiet and still as an apparition among the trees at the edge of the shallow trickling burn; she is wreathed in shadows like the Washer at the Ford.

But it isn’t the ivory shroud of some soon-to-be-dead soul that Meg holds in her hand: it’s a crumpled white plastic carrier bag. ‘Tide’s still out,’ she says, ‘though it’s on the turn.’

Laura nods, smiling at her over-active imagination.

‘And plenty of seaweed left behind.’ Meg steps out of the shadows, shakes out the carrier bag with fingers that poke haphazardly out of woollen gloves frayed with wear. ‘Which is what I’m after. A wee bagful to set to soaking for a while. Makes a good feed for the indoor plants at this time of year. Sees them through the winter.’ The old gate creaks on salt-corroded hinges as she pushes it open and steps through. ‘Years ago we used to carry it up the fields in baskets on our backs, to fertilise the potato patch.’

‘Slippery work.’

‘Aye, it was that. Heavy work, too, when it was wet.’ She points to the shingle down below. ‘See how it forms a kind of a barrier there, stretched out along the beach? That place beyond the seaweed, down to the water there, we used to call it “the Black Shore.”’

‘There’s something special about it, then?’

‘Aye, right enough. It’s a place where you’re protected from evil spirits. See now, they can’t cross boundaries or thresholds. And the Black Shore is an in-between place. The threshold between water and land. So you’re safe.’

‘I like that idea.’ There are so few places in this world that are safe.

‘At places like this you can cross into the Otherworld – or Fairyland, as they call it in some of the stories. Watery places – seashores, rivers, lochs. All of them thresholds between one world and another. Places where all the old Celtic mysteries occur.’

Laura looks out at the glassy surface of the loch. Silence surrounds them, the breathless air pregnant with nightfall. ‘I could believe in any mystery on an evening like this.’

‘Aye.’ Abruptly and with surprising agility Meg begins to pick her way down the rock-strewn grassy bank to the shore. Shrugging, Laura follows. She has nothing better to do; she may as well stay and chat for a while. Taking care not to turn her ankle on the slick uneven pebbles, she follows Meg across the beach. The seaweed changes colour as they approach from undifferentiated darkness to rich brown and orange and all the shades in between. Multi-coloured slicks of water gleam on its surface like spilled oil.

Meg stands for a while, looking out across the loch to the hills beyond. ‘In the islands they say that the hills were made by giant women who fell asleep, and they slept for so long that they turned to stone.’ Laura follows her line of sight and just for a moment in the dim light of evening it seems that she can make out a craggy grey face in profile, the soft swell of a belly, a long stretch of undulating green thigh and the gentle bulge of a kneecap. Meg shakes her head and turns to Laura with a smile. ‘But enough of all that nonsense. How’s it going now, your writing?’

Laura blinks; Meg’s conversations never quite begin where you expect them to.

And what can she say? She’s not used to talking about these times in her life. She’s not even used to thinking about them. And she doesn’t know Meg that well: not really. Does she trust her? Has she ever really trusted other women? A vision of Aunt Lizzie at Meg’s age swims before her, mouth set thin and hard, eyes like small pieces of sea-coal in a face lined with discontent.

But Meg isn’t Aunt Lizzie. Meg is the furthest from Aunt Lizzie that it’s possible to be.

Laura takes a deep breath. Jump, she thinks. You always used to be so good at jumping. Wasn’t that what you always wanted Cat to do? Jump, Cat – for heaven’s sake, just get it over with and jump! Well, take a dose of your own medicine, and remember how to jump now. But make it a calculated leap into the unknown, for once. Something chosen. Not just something that you do to stop yourself thinking.

‘It’s not easy,’ she says, and watches as Meg bends down and swiftly, efficiently tears away a small piece of rusty red seaweed and thrusts it into her carrier bag. ‘They’re not good memories, most of them. And so much that I’d forgotten; so much that I haven’t thought about for years. Haven’t let myself think about.’

‘Aye, well now, looking back is always hard.’

‘You’re not kidding.’ She laughs, a little too loudly. Then remembers that she means to do this differently. Honestly. This time she means to feel it – to really feel it and to see for herself what that feels like. And it strikes her: how many times in her life can she say that she’s honestly let herself feel what was real in that moment? Dear God, how many times has she faked it, covered it up with false laughter or a witty retort? And Cat, seeing through it every time. You’re always such a hypocrite, Mother. Always putting on an act, always putting on a face. Can’t you just be real, for once? And pushing away the desire to scream back at her, But I don’t know how to be real. I don’t know what the real me is. Is there such a thing? Does anyone possess such a thing? Do you? Am I real, Cat? Am I? If I hold on to you, will you make me real?

And Joe: Is there anything real inside you at all, Laura? Any little thing at all?

Swallows. Stutters. Pushes back the image of the hollow woman that hovers in front of her, taunting. There is something in me, she tells herself. I am real. I will make myself real. Write myself real.